In spite of Brexit… reasons for hope in 2017

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As has been written on these pages, UK higher education is operating in uncertain times. There are a multitude of changes all happening at once that threaten our many achievements.

Yet as an optimist I am compelled to look for opportunities, particularly in the realms of research, internationalisation, and skills.

The reasons for pessimism are well known. Brexit and revised immigration controls threaten student recruitment, and the latest UCAS release shows a decrease in EU applicants by 7%. EU students hoping to enrol in 2018/19 do not know what their fees will be or if they will have access to student loans. Fees from international students are even more essential income than ever, but the growth in applications is slowing.

The UK achieves excellent research outcomes, but universities suffer from continual under-investment. Research and development spending of 1.7% of GDP places the UK at 20th in the international league table. Though the UK draws down on €2.63 billion from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the second highest level of funding of any country, Brexit has left participation in this scheme uncertain. As the government covers only 25–30% of universities’ operating costs through QR funding (a marked decrease from nearly 50% in 1989/90), it is difficult to see how we will make ends meet.

Yet thankfully, the Government appears to have research high on its agenda. Ensuring the UK continues to lead on science and innovation is one of Theresa May’s twelve objectives for exiting the EU, and the sector should be well placed to influence the negotiations. The government recognises the national contribution of research and innovation to the UK economy and wants to build on this by creating the new Industrial Strategy Fund. £4.7 billion of new funding was announced in last year’s Autumn Statement.

The British government is also determined to increase international exports and develop overseas links as part of its post-Brexit trade strategy. Which sector already has excellent and well-established links internationally? That’s right: the higher education sector! Universities can be the gateway to internationalisation of other UK businesses, and can provide the advice and skills necessary to penetrate new markets.

Though immigration controls look set to be tightened, we do not necessarily have to curb our international student recruitment. Instead, we will have to rethink our delivery model for these international markets. Blended learning and fully online courses could be the answer. Transnational provision remains a growth area and should continue to be so, in spite of immigration reform and Brexit.

For those universities that really depend on income from EU programmes, now may be the time to establish a campus in Europe, or develop a joint delivery agreement with a trusted EU partner. As well as ensuring continued access to EU funds, such ventures may also create wider opportunities for UK students’ experiences through exchanges and studying abroad.

The apprenticeship levy will also give universities the opportunity to get further involved in the delivery of vocational qualifications in partnership with employers. Delivering apprenticeships could help address recurring employer complaints about our graduates’ preparedness for work. Reforms to further education providers and access agreements could also lead to close partnerships with schools and colleges. This could bolster our ‘home grown’ supply chain and profoundly impact universities’ relationships with our local communities. An increased number of local advocates for our institutions could only be a good thing.

Finally, let’s ask ourselves a hard question: could universities be more efficient? Now is the time to demonstrate that we can. Periods of disruption and challenges such as these should be a catalyst for innovating our delivery models and demonstrating universities’ resilience in a changing world.

Let’s not forget that universities have been subject to change before: the introduction of the REF, changes to student fees, and rapid expansion of providers and student numbers. The sector has survived and thrived despite- or perhaps because of – these changes. As the homes of knowledge, research and innovation there isn’t a sector better equipped to deal with change: we are home to some of the best minds in the world!

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